If you ask ten people to tell you what someone is like, you’re likely to get ten different answers. Those answers might have a lot in common (e.g. everyone might say the person tells a good joke). But there are bound to be differences, because each of us has a slightly different perspective on people.
Sleuths, both fictional and real, have to keep this in mind when they’re investigating cases. It’s crucial to get a sense of what a murder victim was like; the victim’s personality, background, and so on often have a lot to do with the crime. But everyone sees that person a little differently, so the sleuth has to sift through those sometimes-conflicting accounts in order to get a true picture of the crime.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders. They’re all linked by cryptic warning notes that Poirot receives before each event, and by the fact that an ABC railway guide is found next to each body. The second of the murder victims is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard, who worked as a waitress in a café. As Poirot looks into that case, he talks to various people who knew her, and gets sometimes-conflicting portraits. Betty’s parents thought of her as a ‘good girl,’ who wasn’t nearly as ‘wild’ as some others are. Her co-workers at the café saw her as somewhat aloof – not one to mix with the others. Her sister, Megan, calls her ‘an unmitigated little ass’ who liked to flirt, and to be taken out dancing and to films, even though she had a steady boyfriend. Gradually, Poirot puts all of these different pieces together to form a picture of Betty; in the end, that helps him work out who killed her.
Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. When her body is found by a tarn near the Norwegian village of Granittveien, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate. Annie was well-known in the village, and well-liked. From different people in her life, they learn about different sides of her personality. Her teachers say that she did well in school. Her handball coach says she was a disciplined, skilled athlete, but Sejer finds she’d recently quit the team with only a perfunctory excuse. Her mother and stepfather say that she was mature and reliable. She had a boyfriend, but she wasn’t obsessed with him. All in all, she just doesn’t seem like the sort of person to get herself killed, as they saying goes. Little by little, Sejer and Skarre get put the pieces together and get a more comprehensive portrait of the victim. And when they do that, and trace her movements, they’re able to work out who would have wanted to kill her and why.
Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates is the story of the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is discovered under a Tokyo train early one morning. Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to investigate, and the work begins. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, there’s very little information about the victim. He wasn’t from Tokyo (it turns out that he’d come there from Okayama). So, there are no local family members or close friends to interview. When Imanishi traces Miki’s movements back to Okayama, he finds that the victim was well-liked and well-respected there. He was a simple retired store owner, with no vast fortune or bitter relatives. Little by little, Imanishi gets a gradually-developing portrait of the victim and learns that he had more depths to him than it seems at first, and a definite purpose in going to Tokyo. As the police talk to different people who knew the victim, or had met him, they learn about some things that someone wanted to keep quiet and was willing to kill to hide.
In Simon Wyatt’s The Student Body, Auckland Detective Sergeant (DS) Nick Knight is appointed to lead the Suspects Team in the investigation of the murder of fifteen-year-old Natasha Johnson. She was attending a school camp at Piha Beach when she was killed, so Knight and the team naturally focus plenty of attention on the other people at the camp. But they don’t forget Natasha’s family and other friends. From all of these people, Knight gets an emerging portrait of what the victim was like. Her parents report that she did well in school, was interested mostly in her studies, and didn’t have a boyfriend. She wasn’t known to be involved in drugs, gangs, or other dangerous activities, either, so it’s hard to find a viable motive. But, as the team talks to other people, and slowly finds out the truth about Natasha, they find that more than one person might have wanted her dead. Finding the killer is going to involve sifting through all of the contradictory statements about the victim, and really getting to the person she was.
And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, in which we are introduced to Captain Sam Wyndham. It’s 1919 Kolkata/Calcutta, and Wyndham has recently arrived to take up his duties with the police. He’s just gotten started when the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, is found in an alley behind a brothel. There’s a note stuffed in his mouth warning that ‘blood will run in the streets.’ The note seems to be a threat from a pro-independence group, so that’s one important avenue for exploration. And that will be a delicate matter, since the relations between the British and India are strained to say the least. What’s more, the victim was a high-ranking official. And it doesn’t make things easier that he was found in a compromising place. Still, Wyndham and his team get to work. One of their tasks will be to find out more about MacAuley, to see who might have wanted him dead. Little by little, as they get more information, they get a gradually-developing portrait of the man that’s sometimes conflicting. But, in the end, they find out who the killer really is and what the motive was.
Whenever there’s a murder, the police find out whatever they can about the victim, as it helps make it easier to find out who the killer is. Talking to witnesses and others who knew the victim can make for complications, as everyone sees a person differently. But, in the end, it also makes for a complete portrait of the victim. And, it can add interest to a story as we find out more about that person.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Revivalists.